War Never Changes – Fallout and the Monomyth
Except when it does.
It’s a bit of a slow news day so I thought I’d spend today discussing something that I love. Followers of this blog will surely know that both Derek and myself are avid fans of role-playing games. They’re a remarkable mode for gaming and storytelling, often harking back to a time of pulp science fiction and fantasy when stories were meant to tickle the sense of wonder and excitement in its readership. Derek has made comment on how early Dungeons and Dragons, as envisioned by Gary Gygax himself, was focused on fantastical scenarios and peoples that placed the player in a traditional hero’s role.
This set-up is considered rather rudimentary as time goes on, the material reaches a greater audience and tastes mature for more complex narratives. This bleeds down into story designs as the classic hero’s journey is forced to adapt and change to its creator’s desires and fans demands. Fantasy and science fiction, perhaps more than any other genres, have a long history of tapping into the primordial hero’s journey and it is no surprise that games derived from that material share prominent elements of its design.
And while there may be some contention and criticism of Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” that spawned the idea of a generalized Hero’s Journey, there is some use in its structure. The journey, as envisioned in its most simplistic form, begins with an unremarkable member of a tribe receiving a call to adventure. This typically represents some dire need to the community that necessitates the hero venturing forth from his known world into the unknown often receiving advice and assistance from mentors and supernatural entities in order to descend into a transformative period characterized by trials and challenges that culminate with the death of the hero as he knowns himself only to be reborn and return with whatever plot device he was sent to retrieve in the first place.
Thus, Campbell envisioned the standard format for mythology and you can see the basic structure in many common tales from The Hobbit to the original Star Wars. For today, I want to focus on a single video game series in particular.
Fallout was created by the now defunct Interplay Entertainment and is set in a post-apocalyptic 23rd century retrofuturistic world. The visual design of the series is characterized by 1950 cold war Americana which plays upon the period’s hopefulness for the potential of technological improvements to our lives combined with the paranoia of global nuclear holocaust caused by the same technology. The first game follows the protagonist from Vault 13: underground nuclear holdouts built to shelter society from the impending fallout of global war. For generations these people have lived underground, waiting patiently for the devastation from the war to clear so they can emerge and begin rebuilding society. Unfortunately, your Vault’s water supply begins to break down and the protagonist is selected to head out into the wasteland to find a replacement before his community dies from dehydration.
Now, I never played the first game and only the first hours of the second but I did read up on their stories. As you can begin to see, Fallout 1 begins with the classic hero’s journey setup. However, one interesting thing about Science Fiction is that, more often than Fantasy, while the stories draw on the monomyth the structure and themes are more often to be criticized and undermined. In Fallout, after the player successfully discovers a replacement water chip for the Vault and saves the world from a mutant army and its master set on global domination, he is denied returning to his home. The Overseer is fearful that the journey has changed the hero too much and worries that his experiences would destabilize the community so he exiles him in order to maintain order.
Fallout 2 begins much the same. Years after the first, you discover that the protagonist of the first game created a primitive village called Arroyo. At the start of the game, the village is undergoing the worst recorded drought in memory and the village elder recruits the protagonist – the direct descendant of the first game – to search out a Garden of Eden Creation Kit in order to terraform the earth and make it more bountiful. Once again we have unremarkable tribe member being called forth by fate and circumstance to venture from home to rescue his community. And much like the first game, this structure is subverted when your entire village is kidnapped while you are away. Course, this story ends a little more traditionally with the protagonist helping his people.
Likewise, when Interplay went under and Bethesda scooped up the rights to Fallout to make the third installment, we return once again to the monomyth structure. You are a child of a very prominent scientist in a Vault near Washington D.C. Fallout 3 was interesting in that the prologue was spent with you growing up in the Vault before reaching young adulthood to discover that your father has disappeared one night and the Overseer for the Vault has gone mad from this abandonment and sent security after you. Here, we see the undermining of the monomyth pretty quickly as you’re chased out from your community and you spend a majority of your time searching for your father and answers for why you were exiled.
While the Hero’s Journey concept was very influential in guiding some creator’s like George Lucas with Star Wars, there is no denying that the idea has some flaws. First amongst them is the gross generalization of so many rich and varied stories into very stripped components as to lose their flavour. But the monomyth further promotes almost anti-populist ideals as, inevitably, the hero upon return is elected into a social elite and his myth is performed as justification for the standing of the current ruling class. More than anything, the Fallout series challenges to this structure undermine the authority of the leadership. In the first game, the Overseer’s “reward” for the hero’s work and loyalty is exile. In the second game, the primary antagonist is the President of the United States who is determined to unleash a virus that will kill all mutated organisms in America to restore a level of purity that his community can rule (and they must test this virus on your people first to make sure it works). In Fallout 3, not only are you chased out by the Overseer who is paranoid that you and your father are seeking to destabilize his rule, but you also learn that all Vaults were designed as cruel social experiments wherein humanity’s survival was pushed aside in order to test scenarios like some vaults being composed of all men or the outcome of calculated system failures on community morale and cohesiveness. Almost universally, authority is portrayed as cruel, paranoid, manipulative or just downright ineffective. And this isn’t even touching on the fact that the setting itself already underwent a global nuclear war – the very definition of a worldwide failure of leadership in the modern era.
This theme reached its height of complexity with Fallout: New Vegas. Now, players were cast as a free agent – a courier with a simple task of delivering an innocuous chip to one of the few surviving cities to not be devastated by nuclear bombardment. New Vegas is the surviving area of Las Vegas still powered by the functioning Hoover Dam and run by the excessively reclusive Mr. House. Only, things aren’t peaceful in the Mojave Desert as both the NCR and Caesar’s Legion are waging a bloody war with one another over the area and its resources. For the first time, players were no longer tied to a Vault beginning and the cruel failures of the past governing regimes. You would expect this liberation from the monomyth set-up to perhaps avoid criticism of authority. However, as you begin to explore the Mojave Desert and interact with the three major factions, you start coming across criticism of each group. NCR is seen as a bloated and corrupted bureaucratic nightmare where the prosperity and wellbeing of its citizens is pushed aside to pursue individual greed and narrow-sighted victory against their enemy at any cost. Caesar’s Legion is a brutal amalgamation of the various wasteland tribes seeking order through a very strict application of the ancient Roman army standard complete with cultural assimilation, slavery and unyielding military hierarchy. Mr. House is just plain crazy (as well as an iron handed manipulator who forces obedience to his reformations through business contracts enforced at the end of an army of unwavering robots).
I don’t think it comes as any surprise that the most popular ending is the one that eschews all factions and strives for a liberated New Vegas.
In this way, the Fallout series has used the mythical Hero’s Journey as a form of social criticism of authority. It’s a brilliant use of the format, taking the natural benefit of the early stages to introduce the players to the Fallout world by establishing a rather peaceful sense of normal (either in the Vault or a small village). Then, by natural exploration of the elements of the monomyth, the developers examine the moral authority of rulers and questions whether people in charge truly deserve the encompassing power that they wield. More often than not, it’s the smaller communities that eschew these more centralized governments that are the most idyllic. Goodsprings in New Vegas is a functioning community with no clear rulership and a pleasant and satisfied people. Rivet city in Fallout 3 follows in the same lines, relying on co-operation between its scientists and military for safety and well-being. Arroyo in Fallout 2 had an elder but its governing structure was nowhere near as striated as the Vaults.
When I first started playing the Fallout games, I thought it’s little tagline about war was cute if a little shortsighted. Surely, on its surface, war has changed as the battle being fought between Caesar’s Legion and NCR is certainly nowhere near the level as the war that brought about the end of civilization. But then, when you sit back and examine the motives for these wars, you find that it’s all the same. The smaller communities like Goodsprings and Arroyo never initiate these wars. All these conflicts are fueled by power hungry leaderships striving for more than what is necessary.